SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for November: The Memory Collector by Fiona Harper
I’m almost on time! Yeah, not really, but I was away for a week and mostly offline. This month’s challenge was sweet/spicy, i.e., you pick a TBR book that is at one of the ends of the explicitness spectrum. At least that’s how I interpret it. I went for sweet and chose a women’s fiction book by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed in both her Harlequin and single-title incarnations.
The promo for this novel said that it was for fans of Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book that I had very mixed feelings about (my review is here). But I thought that Harper was likely to provide me with a good read, so I bought this last year soon after it came out. It’s women’s fiction with a romantic storyline, with a narrator who is 32, single, and struggling with issues. For those of you who have strong feelings about this, it’s told in 1st person present. I didn’t notice it right away but once I did I couldn’t stop noticing.
Heather Lucas looks to be getting along OK. She has a good job, albeit a contract one, as a documentarian and archivist for private collections, she lives in a flat she likes, and she gets along reasonably well with her sister Faith and loves her niece and nephew. But it’s clear from early on that Heather doesn’t have things under control. Her flat is unnaturally pristine except for a spare room which is packed to the ceiling with stuff. And she visits Mothercare a bit too often for someone who doesn’t have children who need what the store sells.
The reader learns that Heather is the daughter of a mother who was an obsessive hoarder and the spare room contents were left to her on her mother’s death. Heather and Faith’s childhood experiences had a major impact on their lives, but while Faith has created her own family unit, Heather’s present is still shaped by her past. She can’t talk to Faith or her father (who lives in Spain with his second wife) about the things that really matter, and she’s afraid to get too close to her interested and interesting neighbor, Jason.
The novel is about Heather coming to terms with her past and is told in alternating flashbacks between “then” and “now”. Both storylines move through time as now-Heather pieces together what happened to then-Heather, much of which she had repressed or buried deeply so she wouldn’t think about it. As she lets herself think about what happened and why, she builds a healthier relationship with Faith, whom she’s always loved and she is able to move forward with her neighbor Jason.
There’s a lot to like about this book. Heather is a well-drawn, sympathetic character whose behavior and coping mechanisms make sense given what she had to go through. All the other characters are similarly well depicted, and I especially like that while both Faith and Jason supported Heather, she found her own way to a more healthy future. Jason is clearly the love interest, but he isn’t Heather’s savior, and at one point I wasn’t sure he was coming back (this is women’s fiction, not canonical romance, so you never know).
There were also some weaknesses. As is frequent in genre of all types, the reader gets told most of what she needs to know rather than discovering it along the way. I don’t mean withholding information to provide a twist or aha! moment (which is something that really annoyed me about Elinor Oliphant), but I often felt I was getting direct information as if I wouldn’t have gathered it any other way. I hope that makes sense.
There are a lot of triggers in this novel. If you’ve had a parent with mental illness, let alone the specific hoarding issue depicted here, it can be hard going at times. There is also a pregnancy plot point that could be difficult for some readers. They all make sense in the context of the book, and there really aren’t any villains here; Harper depicts everyone with compassion and sympathy while not minimizing the damage that occurs.
Overall, I’m glad I read this and I think Harper succeeded in writing the book she wanted to write. But the misery came thick and fast at times, which I guess is inevitable. A number of reviews called the novel uplifting, and you have to be down to be lifted up.
This sounds interesting to me even though WF isn’t a genre I turn to much. Although—to go on a tangent—I think the genre has evolved to include more focus on romances than it used to, and that makes me more interested in it than I used to be.
I agree that for a book to be uplifting you have to go through tough moments first. Sometimes even through the wringer. Back in the day when I used to love Laura Kinsale’s books (I don’t anymore), this through-a-dark-tunnel-and-into-the-light quality was one of the things that I loved about them. I still like this kind of reading experience a lot, but either it’s become more commonplace or maybe it’s just that I have read a lot more books by this point, but it doesn’t seem as fresh as it used to.
And sometimes, when the trauma you have to relive with the character goes on too long or isn’t leavened enough by other elements, it can feel—heavy handed? Manipulative? Overkill? It sounds like maybe this wasn’t the case here, though. One of those triggers is a tough one for me, but I really like what you say about Heather comes to terms with her traumatic past on her own, although other characters are supportive, so I’ll take a look at this book. Incidentally, I just read another book where the heroine works out her own issues and her friends are supportive but give her the space to do so. I think you might like it; it’s The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary.
If I never read another book told in multiple timelines/flashbacks, that will be quite soon enough. I like Harper’s romances, but I’m giving this one a miss.
@Janine: This is one of those times where I’m glad I’m not doing a graded review, because when I finished my instinct was 3.5, but writing the review made me realize that the book did what it set out to do, I just didn’t click with it fully. Partly it’s the triggers (controlling parents who have issues are one of mine), and partly it’s that I like not being told everything. But it’s a good book. I think you might like it. It’s slow in the first 100 pages but then hits a rhythm.
And thanks for the suggestion of The Flatshare.
@Ros: I hear you! Apart from Susanna Kearsley’s novels, where I know what I’m getting, I do get a bit weary of the now-then setup. Harper’s post-category books are still romantic but they are not romances. They cover quite a range, so given you like her earlier style, check out the blurbs on the more recent ones and see if anything catches your fancy.
I don’t mind flashbacks in romance novels at all but I hate that it’s become so difficult to find historical fiction that doesn’t have a dual timeline (or some connection to WWII—don’t get me started about that).
@Janine: OMG yes. I mostly avoid WW2 books now, even though I find the period fascinating.